Lipstick – Southwark Playhouse

Lipstick is Lily Shahmoon’s playwrighting debut and what a powerful, punchy entrance she has made. The show centres around two teenage boys, in particular their relationship to one another and to their masculinity. Already this is relatively untrodden territory, especially given the way in which Lipstick favours nuance over broad generalisations and caricatures. But then the whole piece is taken to another conceptual level by the casting specification: the two boys, Jordan and Tommy, are played by adult women.

Lipstick contemplates gender, mental health, sexuality and the uncategorizable. Tommy (April Hughes) occasionally wears make-up and dresses to ease his anxiety in the privacy of his own home, but he states that he is not transgender or gay, and he rejects the transvestite label too. It is a bold writing choice that approaches human behaviour with complexity, rather than neatly striving for a legible LGBT identity. Gender switching is often used baselessly to ‘add interest’ to contemporary productions: this casting is far from this, it is inspired and enriching. At one point, Hughes as Tommy in a dress pulls off her male wig to uncover her natural long hair, completing Tommy’s transformation into his female alter ego. We question what is natural and what is artifice, and the boundaries between masculinity and femininity become confusing and elusive.

Helen Aluko gives a fantastic and utterly convincing performance as the confident and popular Jordan, whose bravado and recognisable teenage mannerisms are played straight but produce total hilarity. Hughes has the difficult task of portraying the ‘effeminate’ Tommy whilst still credibly presenting herself as a young boy. She particularly excels in the scenes that portray Tommy’s severe anxiety and panic attacks, but I am always aware of her as an actor, rather than seeing the character come through directly. It is worth noting that Lipstick is also the debut of director Ed White, who does a wonderful job of drawing out the subtlety and humour from the script.

The set of Lipstick is a minimalist bedroom with clothing racks, a desk and a bed. It is functional, compact and well-constructed but otherwise fairly generic. However, the use of lighting (designer Alex Lewer) to creatively enhance the space and transform it into different environments is highly effective and seamlessly done. Overall, the production is polished and impressive, doing justice to Shahmoon’s inventive script. I have some reservations about the sentiment that anxiety is a terminal diagnosis, but this can be considered to be an accurate depiction of how it may feel for Tommy, rather than the playwright’s intended message. Either way, Lipstick is a fresh, innovative and nuanced take on key contemporary themes: it is worth catching now because this play has the potential to go far.

 

Lipstick is running at Southwark Playhouse until 28th March 2020: more info and tickets available here.

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Claudia Graham

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